Look in the mirror - in-house organising

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Associations should look in the mirror to discover their inner Alice Associations should look in the mirror to discover their inner Alice

Something gets lost in translation when PCOs take control of your congress, writes association consultant Inbar Caspi. She believes even the most cautious not-for-profit can bring their congress organising in-house by freeing their inner Alice…

I’ve seen how a little touch of Wonderland - stepping out of your comfort zone - can rejuvenate the most jaded organisation. Here’s how:

Congress as relationship management

Congress is when you get to meet your members face to face: your one chance to 'touch’ your audience and increase their sense of loyalty and belonging to your community. This is when your members can become keenly aware of your impact on their lives. When congress management is outsourced you lose many of the opportunities congress allows for direct contact with your audience. Professional congress organisers (PCO) are middlemen. They have their place - they always will - but they are not you. Something always gets lost in translation, and you lose a precious opportunity to make the strongest possible impact.

Congress as core income

In most cases, congress accounts for the vast majority of an association’s income - sometimes up to 90 per cent. But when middlemen are involved you will be losing valuable revenue. Taking congress in-house puts control of finances squarely with your organisation. You can negotiate contracts directly, ensuring that the terms and conditions are in favour of your association, and you can be certain that you understand and approve every line item in the budget. Maximising profit means more money for your core activities.

Congress as team empowerment

When your association is producing the congress - not just acting as administrators or message conveyors - stability and commitment to the cause grows. They become proud of the product they’re producing because they have a stake in it. Within the medical associations I work with, I have seen gradual transformations in the attitude of staff members, as they take more control over their congress. When the team radiates pride and confidence, the trust of the board grows significantly.

The one question you need to ask

Take a step into Wonderland and listen carefully to the question the Blue Caterpillar asked Alice: “Who are you?” Answer this: What would your members be lacking if your association ceased to exist? What do you provide that they can’t get anywhere else?

Once you have your answers, turn your lens on your congress. How do you facilitate that value through your congress? Could bringing your congress in-house - taking back control over your program, your relationship with your sponsors, your communication with your community - enable you to contribute value in new, powerful ways?

Smart planning: Seven questions to ask

You’ve decided to take your congress in house. Smart planning can mean the difference between a premature, lacklustre attempt and a successful transition. Here are the questions you must answer to see if it’s the right time for such a change, and how to best facilitate it.

  1. What are the advantages and risks of taking the congress in-house?
  2. What is the potential financial gain?
  3. What will be the cost of the transition?
  4. What is the desired pace of the transition?
  5. What should the structure of the congress team be?
  6. Which activities should be brought in-house and which should continue to be outsourced?
  7. What will be our relationship be with the PCO during the transition period, and afterwards?

A gradual process

Moving your congress in-house - even once you’ve made the decision to do so - is not a breathless fall down a rabbit hole. This is a controlled transition. It will take up to three years from the initial decision until you reach optimal management of all relevant aspects of your conference.


Anja Sander, Executive Director of European Academy of Neurology

IC When did you decide to self-manage your congress?

AS The official decision was taken in May 2016. We had been talking about being more independent for several years and the change of mind was gradual. We always managed the scientific programme and speakers relations as we feel that the programme and speakers are the core of the congress.

IC What was your first self-managed congress?

AS June 2017. After the decision was taken, the implementation was quick. We recruited a congress manager and sponsorship sales person. We took control over the congress budget, the congress bank account, contracts with venues and suppliers and many other aspects that were previously outsources.

IC What were the main reasons for taking the congress in house?

AS Although we were happy with the co-operation with our PCO, it became more and more obvious, that the EAN team has a clear vision of how the EAN congress should be organised, what it should look like, how our audience should feel and using a 'middle man' to create it, simply didn’t make sense. However, first and foremost, the main reason was that taking control over your congress management is the only way to create a unique congress with the personal touch of your society.

IC What did you identify as risks in the transition?

AS More than the risks, it is the additional attention and resources that need to be considered by all the office team, from the executive director to the office manager. Even the Board should be aware that there will be new tasks for them that they were not involved in before. There is a lot of learning and training with the new responsibility. There is a learning curve and it should be quantified both in the budget and in resources

IC What services will you continue to outsource?

AS We plan to continue outsourcing the registration, accommodation, parts of the technical operation, exhibitors’ services and on-site operation.

*About the author: Inbar Caspi is a consultant and mentor to medical associations.

James Lancaster
Written By
James Lancaster

AMI editor James Lancaster is a familiar face in the meetings industry and international association community. Since joining AMI in 2010, he has gained a reputation for asking difficult questions and getting lost in convention centres. Proofer, podcaster, and panellist - in his spare time, James likes to walk, read, listen to music, and drink beer.

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